Thursday, November 01, 2007

Wait for it ... wait for it ...

The worries of Chicago-area mass transit riders, Illinois public schools and human service providers culminated at the state Capitol Thursday, but they were all put on hold for seven to 10 days. Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Thursday night outside of his Statehouse office that he would announce a short-term plan Friday that would save Chicago-area mass transit from severe cuts in services and in payroll.

In those seven to 10 days, Blagojevich said he and the legislative leaders — three of whom stood next to him Thursday night — would urge the Regional Transportation Authority to avoid cutting Chicagoland mass transit services November 4. He said that’s because he and the Illinois General Assembly could tie up major differences in the capital program for road and school construction financed by a gaming expansion. And tying that up would allow for Republicans and downstate lawmakers to approve a mass transit bill primarily for Chicago, he said.

He was joined by Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and the two Republican leaders, Tom Cross in the House and Frank Watson in the Senate.

Quote Blagojevich: “There’s broad consensus among Senate President Jones, Republican Leader Watson, Republican Leader Cross and myself that the practical reality is that in order to solve the mass transit problem long-term for the Chicagoland area, we need an infrastructure, capital construction program to get the downstate members to vote for a Chicago issue and to get the Republican members to support a Chicago issue.”

The missing force was House Speaker Michael Madigan, who arrived late and left early from the leaders’ meeting. Afterwards, Madigan said little other than that the House would wait to hear the governor’s announcement before voting on the mass transit proposal that would increase the regional sales tax and real estate transfer tax in Cook County and restructure the governance of the Chicago Transit Authority.

“We’re going to wait to hear from the governor to see if he has produced more money for another short-term, one-week to 10-day bailout,” Madigan said before walking away.

Downstairs from the leaders’ meeting, Chicago Transit Authority executive director Ron Huberman told a House committee that the agency can’t risk accepting another short-term solution. But that depends on whether he, as well as the mass transit riders and other service providers waiting for state money, believe the governor’s promise that everything will fall into place within seven to 10 days.

Jones said the RTA and the CTA officials will testify to a Senate committee Friday.

Schools held hostage?
One more issue tangled in this mess is state aid payments for public schools.

School districts across the state are still waiting for increases in state aid payments promised to them when the legislature approved a state budget in August. (They’ve been getting their fiscal year 2007 levels since August.) The piece of legislation needed for the state to distribute the new money — including an increase in per-student spending and an increase in reimbursements for special education teachers — is another victim of the political standoff on capital and mass transit funding.

“Enough is enough.” That was the message delivered by state Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican, on behalf of fellow House Republicans and school superintendents earlier Thursday in a Statehouse news conference.

Without the legislation to release the new money, Eddy said not only will schools miss out on the promised increased funding, but some districts actually will lose money. The Illinois State Board of Education would have to recalculate general state aid payments using last year’s numbers.

“In fact, 726 school districts, as of today, when the calculation is recalculated, will actually receive less money in state aid payments beginning with the November 10 payment,” Eddy said.

For instance, Jeff Patchett, superintendent of Oblong Community Unit School District 4 in east central Illinois, said that his district, which is already on the federal financial warning list, would lose out on $8,571 in state aid per month without legislative action. If the legislation to implement the payments were approved, then the district’s state aid payments would increase by more than $21,000 per month.

Logistically, the House could vote on one ”budget implementation bill” (a.k.a. BIMP) already approved by the Senate. Instead, the House advanced a new, more comprehensive BIMP bill that Democratic budget negotiator Rep. Gary Hannig of Litchfield said is more in sync with the approved budget than the one approved by the Senate month’s ago.

The House and Senate are back in session Friday, and the leaders are expected to meet again. Jones said the leaders could continue to meet in Springfield and Chicago over the next seven to 10 days. Mass transit riders, school officials and service providers will be holding their breath in the meantime.

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